Freedom Struggle                                                                                                                         Back to History Page
Peasant Revolts
Excerpted from In the Wake of Naxalbari by Sumanta Banerjee, Calcutta 1980

The early years of British rule in India were marked by widespread peasant rebellions. Long before the Sepoy Rebellion -- often regarded as the first war of Indian independence -- hungry peasants of Bengal and Bihar, victims of a terrible famine (1770) rose in revolt against the East India Company, which had been exacting money and crops from them. This was the famous Sannyasi rebellion. A large number of sannyasis and fakirs who were being fleeced by the British rulers through various forms of exactions, played an important role in organizing the peasants and hence the name --Sannyasi Rebellion. Along with the peasants and the sannyasis and fakir, there were also village artisans -- the famous silk weavers of Bengal, who had been made to slave for the British merchants -- and the thousands of unemployed soldiers from the disbanded Mughal army. Led by Majnu Shah, Bhabani Pathak, Debi Chaudhurani and a host of heroic figures, the rebellion continued till the beginning of the 19th century and was marked by daring attacks on the East India Company's offices in different parts of Bihar and Bengal, killing of notorious Indian landlords and money-lenders as well as of oppressive British traders and army officers, and both guerilla and positional warfare against the British army.

The chieftans' uprising of peasant rebels spread all over South India from 1800-1801, against the British soldiers and Indian feudal princes. The rebels under the leadership of Marudu Pandyan of Sivaganga, Malappan of Ramnad, and several other chieftans -- all men of the masses -- succeeded in forming a Peninsula Confederacy all over South India, and after having defeated the British army in different parts of South India, established their sway over a large number of villages, where people's committees were formed and villagers refused to pay taxes to the East India Company. [South Indian Rebellion -- First War of Independence, 1800-1801 by K. Rajayyan, 1974].

The challenge posed by the rebels was so serious that the British had tomarch detachments from Ceylon, Malaya and England on an emergency basis to crush the rebellion. But "more than what the English did, the decisive factor that rendered the rebel fortunes unsustainable was the hostile attitude of the princes. The devoted service rendered by them not only made the power of the English formidable, but crippled the will of the patriots and excited dissension within their ranks." [ibid]

In 1820, the Ho tribal peasants of Chhotanagpur in Bihar, rose against the British rulers and the local money-lenders and zamindars. The establishment of British authority in the area, had led to dislocation in the socio-economic living pattern of the Ho people. A large number of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh traders and money-lenders had come and settled among them. Their lands were being occupied by these outsiders through contracts enforced by courts of law. Widespread discontent ensued among the Hos. The first Ho uprising of 1820 was suppressed soon by the British. But the Hos rose again in 1821. This time they were well-organized and strong enough to besiege the fort of Chinepoor, and had the entire Kolhan area at their mercy. The zamindars and the Rajah of Porahat appealed to the British for help, and the Ho uprising was ruthlessly crushed.

In fact, the Chhotanagpur area remained a centre of turbulent uprisings throughout the 19th century. The Oraons -- another tribal communityrebelled in 1820, 1832, 1890. The Kol tribals organized an insurrection in 1831-32 which was directed mainly against Government officers and private money-lenders. The Mahajans extracted 70 per cent or more interest and many Kols became boded labourers for life. The immensity of the Kol rebellion could he gauged from the fact that troops had to be rushed from far off places like Calcutta, Danapur and Benaras to quell it.

Another important rebellion of this period was the Wahabi uprising in Bengal under the leadership of the famous Titu Meer in 1831. What began as a religious reform movement soon turned into an armed revolt against orthodox mullahs, feudal landlords and British soldiers. Although Titu and his peasant followers who fought their last heroic battle from within a bamboo fortress in a village called Narikelbaria, were defeated by the British in course of the insurrection, Titu had managed to oust the British through successive operations from several villages in South 24-Parganas, Nadia and Jessore, where he established a parallel authority and collected taxes from zamindars.

But a more stirring source of inspiration for future agrarian struggles ws the Santhal uprising of 1855-57. The Santhal country extended from Bhagalpur in Bihar in the north to Orissa in the south, the centre being Damin-i-koh (meaning the skirts of the hill), situated near the Rajmahal Hills, stretching from Hazaribagh to the borders of Bengal. The Santhal tribes reclaimed from wild jungles every square foot of arable land, where they cultivated and lived peacefully till the arrival of Bengali and other traders and merchants. The latter persuaded the Santhal peasants to buy luxury goods on credit, and later at harvest time forced them to pay back the loans along with interest. The balance against the Santhal in the mahajan-cum-trader's book increased year by year, till the poor peasant was compelled to give up, not only his crops but gradually his plough and bullocks, and finally his land, to meet the demands of the traders. As the debt, lying like an incubus upon the landless Santhals, daily grew upon them, many were reduced to bond-slaves pledging their future descendants to the service of the creditors' families.

The leaders of the Santhal rebellion were two brothers - Sidu and Kanu of Bhagnadihi. Organized on a vast scale, it swept across the entire Santhal region from Bihar to Orissa. Frustrated in their repeated attempts in the past to seek justice from courts and minions of the law, the peasants raised the cry -- "Death to the money-lenders, the police, the civil court officers and the landlords !" It thus took on in effect the nature of an anti-feudal and anti-state movement. Within a few months the tables were turned. The whirlwind fanned up by the money-lenders swept down upon them without pity or remorse. Notorious landlords, traders and mahajans were selected and killed. Later historians expressed their shock at the "brutalities" committed by the rebels, but chose to ignore the years of grinding brutality that the peasants had to suffer at the hands of the landlords and traders. The Santhal rebels were joined by poor and landless peasants of other lower castes and village artisans. They defeated the British troops in several encounters, forcing the colonial administration to declare martial law over a vast expanse from Birbhum and Murshidabad in Bengal to Bhagalpur in Bihar --the area where the rebels succeeded in destroying all semblance of British rule. The Santhal rebellion was finally crushed by the British troops. About 10,000 rebels perished in the unequal fight between peasants armed with bows and arrows on the one side and soldiers equipped with firearms, on the other.

Sporadic peasant revolts found their culmination in the 1857 uprising, which besides being a mutiny of sepoys and a putsch by the ex-rulers of the country had, as an important component, thousands of spontaneous peasants' jacqueries all over North India. Although bourgeois historians have glossed over the role of the peasantry in the 1857 uprising, contemporary records provide ample information to help us measure the extent of peasant participation. A British eye-witness account, according to one historian, admits : ".. .in Oudh the whole population was up in arms; every village was fortified, and everyman's hand was against us. As an example it may be pointed out that out of the 40,000 men who besieged Lucknow, 20,000 went away to sow the fields." [The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857, R.C. Majumdar, Calcutta, 1963]. In February 1858, in the battle that took place at Miagunj, between Lucknow and Kanpur, among the 8,000 rebel soldiers that fought the British, only 1,000 were sepoys, the rest being peasants from adjacent villages.

Within a few weeks of the uprising, British rule was almost demolished all over northern India. In a bid to establish some sort of people's rule, the rebels set up a "Court of Administration" with elected representatives from the sepoys and other sections of the population. The rest of the story is well known.

Even after 1857, and the consolidation of British rule in India, the ferment of unrest among the peasants burst forth periodically into revolts. The peasants of Bengal, forced to cultivate indigo under a life-long bondage to the British planters who exported the blue dye to Britain to feed the requirements of the growing cotton industry there, rose in a rebellion in 1850, and succeeded in putting an end to the hated system.

Under the leadership of Birsa, the Mundas of the Ranchi area fought the Hindu landlords in 1895. In the princely states of Rajasthan, the traditionally militant Bhil and Meo peasants fought against the local money-lenders and landlords. In the south, the Moplah peasants of Malabar rose against feudal extortions and oppression.

Two major peasant uprisings that occurred in India in more recent times were, the Tebhaga movement in undivided Bengal in 1946, and the insurrection at Telengana from 1946-51. Unlike the usually sporadic and spontaneous peasant revolts of the past, both the two developments were politically inspired and had a firm organizational basis and practical programme. The then undivided Communist Party of India played a leading role in both the events. The Tebhaga [three parts] movement, as its name indicates, demanded the reduction of the share of the landowners from one-half of the crop to one-third. Peasants, under the leadership of the Communist Party dominated Kisan Sabhas, cultivated the fields and took away forcibly two-third of the harvested crops to their granaries. The landlords attacked the peasants with the help of mercenary toughs and the police, and bloody clashes ensued. The movement spread from village to village, from Dinajpur and Rangpur in North Bengal to 24-Parganas in the south of the province. Although primarily launched on economic demands, the rebellion in some areas led to the flight of landlords leaving the villages at the mercy of the peasants, who often virtually turned them into 'liberated areas' administering affairs in the villages through the Kisan Sabha. For various reasons, the The Tebhaga movement finally petered out.


The insurrection at Telengana was of a more lasting value, both because of its achievements and its military organization. Telengana was a part of the former Hyderabad State in South India. It was the biggest princely state in India with 17 districts and a population of 17 million at that time, ruled by the Nizam. The Telegu-speaking Telengana region occupied half the area.

The peasant struggle in Telengana which began in 1946, was against forced labour, illegal exactions, evictions by feudal landlords and oppression by village Patels, among other things and later developed into an agrarian liberation struggle to get rid of feudal landlordism and the Nizam's dynastic rule in the state. The struggle continued even after the Nizam's rule ended with the entry of Indian troops in September 1948 and the merger of the Hyderabad State into the Indian Union. From elementary self-defence with lathis and slings against the landlords' hired hoodlums and police, the struggle evolved into a full-scale armed revolt against the Nizam and his army, and later against the offensive of the Indian troops.

By 1947, a guerilla army of about 5,000 was operating in Telengana. During the course of the struggle which continued till 1951, the people could organize and build a powerful militia comprising 10,000 village squad members and about 2,000 regular guerilla squads. The peasantry in about 3,000 villages, covering roughly a population of three million in an area of about 16,000 square miles, mostly in the three districts of Nalgonda, Warangal and Khammam, succeeded in setting up gram-raj or village Soviets. The landlords were driven away from the villages, their lands seized, and one million acres of land were redistributed among the peasantry. As many as 4,000 communists and peasant activists were killed, and more than 10,000 communist and sympathizers were put behind the bars, initially by the Nizam's government, and later by the armed forces of the Indian Government.

Describing the strategy and tactics adopted by the rebels during the anti-Nizam phase of the struggle, i.e. before September 1948, one Communist leader who was also a participant in the struggle wrote : "It was felt that we could not resist the raids of army, police and Razakars* without well-trained guerillas. The initial prerequisites were collection of arms and formation of guerilla squads. All the previous struggles were of an economic nature and in self-defence. Although they were politically significant they were not products of the slogan of political liberation. Consequently future struggles had to be planned with the slogan of political liberation unlike in the past. The Communist Party and Andhra Mahasabha [the mass front from behind which the illegal Communist Party had to work] jointly gave a call for collection of arms and formation of guerilla squads. A directive was issued for sudden raids in the night on homes of landlords and seizure of their weapons on a fixed date ... Guerilla squads were formed with young men who could devote all their time. This was the first type of squad. A second sort of squad for village defence was organized with such men who could not devote all their time to guerilla squads. The third category 'of squads was composed of those who destroyed the communication and transport lines of the army and razakars.... Some comrades who had formerly worked in the army imparted training in tactics of warfare. After some time there emerged instructors 'among our workers. This was a consequence of continued battles and expansion of squads." [Heroic Telengana by Ravi Narayan Reddy, 1973]

Describing the administration of the villages from where officials and lordlords fled, the writer said : "Lands enjoyed by the landlords with false revenue certificates were taken over and distributed. A ceiling on landlord's holding was fixed and the rest distributed among the people, particularly among agricultural labourers and the landless poor. All the lands, implements and cattle of landlords who were allies of the enemy were taken over  and distributed. Documents of debts with money-lenders and landlords were destroyed and such debts made infructuous. Hundreds of quintals of foodgrains were taken over from the godowns of traitors and given away to the people. Wages of agricultural labour were raised." [ibid]

By September 1948, when the Indian Army moved in, about one-sixth of  the region had passed over to Communists, who had started re-distributing land confiscated from the landlords, among the peasants. But differences developed among the CPI leaders of Telengana in 1948, after the entry of the Indian Army. Finally, in 1951 the Communist Party asked its followers to surrender arms and withdraw the movement.
*The Razakar army was formed under the leadership of Kasim Razvi ; the leader of the Majlis Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, and called upon Muslims to protect Hyderabad from Hindus.